Last week, I had the pleasure of celebrating the launch of NSF/ANSI 391.1 with a group of varied stakeholders, government organizations and experts in the professional services sector. The first sustainability standard for the professional services sector, which includes public relations and advertising agencies, is now a reality. I was honored to participate in the development of this standard as a Joint Committee member and Chair of the Social Working Group.

After five years in development, NSF International, along with a balanced committee of stakeholders, has published “NSF/ANSI 391.1: General Sustainability Assessment Criteria for Professional Services,” an American National Standard that provides the professional services industry with a roadmap to equally address environmental, social, economic and supply chain issues that fall under the greater sustainability umbrella.

With the professional services industry contributing nearly $2.10 trillion to the U.S. economy1 , or an approximate 12 percent share of GDP, the new standard presents a solution for public and private professional services firms to evolve the industry’s sustainability standards. Sustainability differs sector by sector, as reflected by sector-specific initiatives, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, the Sustainability Consortium, and the Responsible Business Alliance, among others. Despite varying policies and definitions of sustainability across industries, all businesses have a common understanding: sustainability is now a license to operate.

Unlike other industries, professional services firms’ core business centers around the performance of human capital amid a competitive market. This distinction has made the path toward sustainability unclear for much of the industry, which is characterized as having a professional workforce with high knowledge concentration but low capital needs.

NSF/ANSI 391.1 is significant because it clarifies the path to sustainability for professional services companies, taking meaningful distinctions into account to provide guidance tools and a means of evaluation for firms that will help them along their sustainability journey, regardless of where they are on that journey today. The standard also allows a professional service firm to differentiate itself from competitors as one that is committed to social and environmental sustainability.

Further distinguishing it, the new standard measures environmental, social, economic and supply chain efforts. Up until now, no industry specific standard has recognized the growing importance of supply chain sustainability by including it as a distinct pillar or valuing it to be of equal importance as the other three.

Other unique aspects of NSF/ANSI 391.1 include:

  • A points-driven and results-based standard that addresses all areas of sustainability, going far beyond a general framework;
  • A scorecard requiring that companies achieve a base level of 50 points, with a minimum of 10 points in each of four sections – environmental, social, economic and supply chain – and another 10 points from other key performance indicators, or KPIs, many of which are new to sustainability standards altogether;
  • KPIs related to supplier diversity, community involvement and other topics.

The standard comes at a time when many in the communications industry are witnessing an increase in stakeholder expectations as it relates to companies’ sustainable operations. The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer highlights that over 75 percent of people surveyed agree that CEOs should take the lead on change instead of waiting for government to impose it. Edelman, like other professional services firms, has experienced a growing number of RFPs across platforms that seek information on our spend with diverse suppliers, employment practices and environmental factors.

Edelman is using the first-ever professional services sustainability standard to guide our sustainability efforts moving forward and, in the future, we seek to achieve certification. I invite other communications firms to do the same. To get started, or for more information about the published ANSI standard, visit this link.

1 Norm Schriever, Ranking the Biggest Industries in the US Economy – With a Surprise #1, Blue Water Credit,

John Edelman is managing director, Global Engagement & Corporate Responsibility.